Small hydroelectric waterfalls to protect rivers

A California company, Natel Energy, is working to develop a low-head, low-impact hydropower approach that addresses one of the major concerns of the new deployment: the impact on natural flows.

Of course, if the new strategies take away too much revenue, the effort is not sustainable. At the same time, the company is passionate about minimizing environmental impact and helping restore and protect local ecosystems.

To meet this challenge, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) helped Natel rethink hydraulics.

Michael Craig, NREL’s veteran research engineer, and Greg Stark, NREL’s technical director for hydropower, worked with Natel CEO Gia Schneider and colleagues to investigate downstream revenue and power flow trade-offs. a hypothetical series of cascading small hydroelectric installations.

This system of 36 cascading hydroelectric plants is designed to preserve the river’s connectivity for water, fish, sediment and people.

NREL’s analysis indicated that effects on natural river flows may be negligible if the system is controlled in a coordinated fashion.

NREL moved the needle on both fronts – economic and ecological sustainability – by building a model that helped us quantify and understand the trade-offs between revenue impacts and downstream flows. This work showed that the reduction in revenue due to the operational changes needed to achieve our environmental goals was small, less than 4%.

Gia Schneider, CEO of Natel.

Insights from the NREL analysis also led Natel to consider combining new hydropower projects into larger Virtual Power Plants (VPPs). Leveraging advances in distributed energy resource management, microgrids and batteries, these hydropower VPPs can provide grid reliability services with minimal environmental impact and zero carbon emissions.

Thanks to modern power electronics and controls, the small plant and basin of each cascaded node can be managed in sync with the other nodes to meet the power demand.

This flexibility allows the plant to produce reliable renewable energy with energy storage and enables system operators to integrate more variable and less flexible renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar, into the grid. .

In addition to protecting natural river flows, these facilities help reconnect rivers to floodplains, restore river habitat and biodiversity, reduce flooding, and improve groundwater recharge.

Natel offers hardware and software solutions designed to mitigate climate change, build climate resilience and, over time, build a 100% renewable grid. Our work with NREL has allowed us to continue to advance sustainable grid-scale distributed hydropower.

Gia Schneider.

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